Lakeland, Fla. – The concept of an X-factor is thrown around too liberally in sports. But when you look at the Tigers, at least as things look three days before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, it’s difficult not to see Anibal Sanchez as the fulcrum of the starting rotation.
The Tigers paid good money ($290 million) to feel good about the top of their rotation – Justin Verlander and Jordan Zimmermann. They are willing to roll the dice on the back end with a gritty veteran (Mike Pelfrey) and a promising young left-hander (Daniel Norris).
Sanchez, 32 and coming off the most befuddling season of his career, stands smack in the middle. And it doesn’t take much imagination to see how different this rotation would look with a healthy and productive Sanchez, vintage 2013, as opposed to the 2015 version.
Sanchez, who worked out Monday morning with a group of about 12 pitchers, feels the same way.
“Yeah, I do,” he said. “Last year wasn’t – no matter how good I feel before a start, everything don’t come out good. One game I gave up like five hits and three of them were homers. It was incredible. One game I strike out 11, but I give up two homers.
“This year is totally different. I don’t want to think about anything that happened last year, but I am going to use it to make me strong mentally.”
Sanchez, just two years removed from posting a league-best 2.57 ERA with 202 strikeouts, was 10-10 last season with a 4.99 ERA and 1.28 WHIP. He gave up a league- and career-high 29 home runs in 157 innings.
Curiously, there was no drastic loss of velocity. There was no pitch in his vast arsenal that he had to scrap. Until August, Sanchez’s struggles were a mystery to the club and himself.
The mystery was cleared up when Sanchez announced he’d been trying to work through some pain and soreness in his right shoulder. He was diagnosed with a rotator cuff strain and shut down after not making it out of the third inning on Aug. 18.
“I had a couple of parts on my body that were sore and I started dropping my arm on the side,” he said. “The pitches I threw with up and down movement went side to side. At the end, they were making contact on every pitch I threw because nothing was dropping down.”
According to BrooksBaseball.com, opponents hit .292 off Sanchez’s four-seam fastball and, alarmingly, .278 off his flat slider. In 2013, opponents hit .224 off his fastball and .162 off his slider. Clearly, losing his sinking action was a major culprit.
Sanchez did not require surgery on his shoulder, nor did he need any extensive rehab. Rest was the prescription for the shoulder – but not for the rest of his body.
While he didn’t pick up a baseball for three and a half months, he put the rest of his body, particularly his legs, through holy hell.
“I did a lot of good stuff in the offseason,” he said. “Treatment on the whole body, working to reduce the tightness in places on my body. My conditioning was amazing. The plan I picked this offseason was really good.”
For the past five months, Sanchez has worked out six days a week. On five of those days, he said, he focused on his legs.
“The upper-body exercises were complementary to the leg work,” he said.
What he has learned, from doctors and trainers, is that his shoulder is strong, structurally and otherwise. It’s all the attending parts of the body that contribute to throwing a baseball that needed work.
“It’s more that it was too tight,” he said of his shoulder. “All the exercises I’ve been doing now, they make me strong and loose. Before I would work so hard on my shoulders and back, my whole upper body, and when I throw in tense situations, that’s when I’d get ligament pulls and strains and things like that.
“This offseason, I work legs, glute and core, and that’s helped me take a lot of pressure off my arm.”
He began his throwing program on Dec. 10 and he’s been on his normal offseason progression since. He looked to be throwing free and easy in his long-toss session Monday.
“Everything feels great, normal,” he said. “Personally, I work so hard in the offseason, I really want to see the results on the field during the season.”
Tiger Nation is right there with him.